‘I Never Plan On Going Back’

ESD teacher plans to keep teaching changes made to address student pandemic needs

When Episcopal School of Dallas AP Physics teacher Matt Varvir was staring down the pandemic and distance learning he, like every teacher, had to take a good look at how he taught and what his students needed from him.

What resulted, he said, was a “radical transformation” of his teaching approach.

“Because I knew some of my students could be taking part in distance learning at any given time, I decided it was time to take the ‘flipped classroom’ plunge, a radical transformation in the traditional approach to teaching AP Physics and AP Physics 2,” he said.

In lieu of standard homework assignments, Varvir’s students watch videos, take notes, and then answer a few questions using the school’s online platform so he “can gauge where their current level of understanding is before they even enter the classroom.”

He then adjusts his approach as needed.

“I adjust my teaching strategies accordingly, bringing forth different discussions and practice problems to most closely mirror what they are struggling with,” he explained.

But does the new approach work? Varvir acknowledges that the results are pretty preliminary with not quite half the school year behind him, but “it is hard not to see this experiment as an unqualified success.

“In fact, I never plan on going back to the way that I previously taught physics,” he said, adding that his students’ tests scores this year are just as high as scores from previous years — sometimes even better.

“The number of in-depth discussions completed, high-level problems completed, and laboratory investigations experienced in each class have all increased due to the overall freeing up of in-class time,” he said.

The more mindful approach, he said, also has had a benefit psychologically, too.

“Overall, the amount of stress that my students have reported has decreased and their level of enjoyment with their own learning has increased, largely because they can set their own pace and because they have many more opportunities to try out new ideas under my eye,” he said.

Last month, Varvir’s AP Physics II students held their second Recyclable Watercraft Exhibition at the school’s Quarry. The exhibition is a capstone to a two-month project requiring students to construct a watercraft out of recyclable materials that can support at least 150 pounds of weight — but is also as small in volume as possible and as buoyant as possible. The watercraft are then raced in the Quarry.

The two months of work involved studying fluid mechanics and buoyancy, anthropogenic climate change and hurricanes, and creating a prototype “emergency watercraft device” for communities at high risk of flooding as a real-world application of what they were learning.

This year’s winner was senior Kai Robinson, whose watercraft was constructed of recycled water jugs. 

Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson, Digital Editor at People Newspapers, cut her teeth on community journalism, starting in Arkansas. Recently, she's taken home a few awards for her writing, including first place for her tornado coverage from the National Newspapers Association's 2020 Better Newspaper Contest, a Gold award for Best Series at the 2018 National Association of Real Estate Editors journalism awards, a 2018 Hugh Aynesworth Award for Editorial Opinion from the Dallas Press Club, and a 2019 award from NAREE for a piece linking Medicaid expansion with housing insecurity. She is a member of the Education Writers Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Association of Real Estate Editors, the News Leaders Association, the News Product Alliance, and the Online News Association. She doesn't like lima beans, black licorice or the word synergy. You can reach her at [email protected].

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